Black Widows

Here’s a recent bargain find from a vide grenier, a pair of classic leather cycling shoes, often nicknamed ‘Black Widows’.

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My Loano lace up black widows

To the untrained eye, they might look like Jazz dance shoes; lightweight, perforated and thin soled. They are designed to be used with toe clips and straps, which have been replaced on all but period replica bikes by automatic clipless pedals. Unlike steel tubes, downtube shifters and 5 speed freewheels, this is a throwback that I don’t really agree with. As toe clip and straps hold the feet in the pedals until the strap buckle is pulled by hand, they make unexpected dismounts trickier and as such are potentially dangerous. I therefore do not agree with period sportives and races banning the use of clipless pedals.

The bare soles - note the dark line worn in by the pedals.

The bare soles – note the dark line worn in by the pedals.

These are the kind of shoes worn by Coppi, Merckx, and Kelly, with their design varying little from the 1900s to the 1980s, when synthetic materials appeared, and then clipless pedals replaced toe clips. They were used with ‘trench’ cleats – cleats with a groove running along them that engaged the back plate of the pedal. A rider would generally ride them new for a few rides without cleats, after which time a mark from the pedal would be worn into the sole of the shoe, indicating where to place the cleats. The cleats were then nailed in by a bike shop or cobbler, and were not adjustable. Unlike modern pedals and cleats they did not allow any float (rotation of the feet on a vertical axis), potentially leading to knee problems.

Jacques Anquetil and Rik van Looy wearing black widows. (Wikipedia)

While the cleats may have been superseded, the style has not. There has been a spate of modern shoes designed with laces and perforated uppers, reminiscent of the glory days of cycling. The Giro Empire is one such example, which arguably kicked off the trend in the mainstream. They have been worn by Bradley Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, among others. While they are certainly stylish, bike tech supremo Lennard Zinn believes that laces are far less effective than velcro or ratchet straps at holding the foot in a comfortable, efficient position for any amount of time.

Giro Empire modern lace up shoes (giro.com)

My pair didn’t come with cleats fitted (they never have been) and I don’t intend on fitting them. That way even if I use clips and straps I will be able to pull my foot out of the pedal. I will lose a small amount of power transfer this way, but in addition to being safer on the bike, they will be much easier to walk in this way too.

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Modern trench cleats for use with three bolt road shoes. (a bit of a silly idea if you ask me!)

The shoes were a great find, in great condition at a bargain price. Importantly, they are size 45 (UK10, US11) which is rather rare. Cycling is a sport that until recently was largely the reserve of 5 foot 6 Southern Europeans who weighed 120 lbs – finding vintage cycling shoes any larger than 42 is exceptional. Loano is actually a French brand, but with a definite Italian flavour to their shoes. Although these shoes have a fifties/sixties feel to them, they’re more likely a seventies or eighties low end model. I was in two minds whether to sell these of keep them, but I think I’ve become rather attached to them. They’ll come in handy for riding bikes with cranksets for French threaded pedals, which I can’t fit clipless pedals to.

Relooking – Look KG 223

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The original spec… Relooking is the ‘French’ word for makeover – appropriate enough for my Look rebuild.

My old Townsend has been out of date since it was built. I’d bet it’s older than I am, and even if it isn’t, the technology it’s built with certainly is. What I’m saying is that I needed a new bike – it’s come a long way since it was £17 on Ebay, but it’s time for a full upgrade. I’d built up a reasonable set of components though, so I was considering just changing the frame. I wanted to stick with steel, so I was on the lookout for a bargain Reynolds or Columbus frame. I could just go out and drop €400 on a Sora equipped aluminium bike, but I want something with more character. I want the smooth ride and durability of steel. I ended up spotting this Look KG 223 at a Troc (pawn shop) – it ticked most of the boxes: Columbus frame, Carbon fork and Campagnolo 8 speed with Ergoshifters. At a price of only €90 I couldn’t say no.

Look is famous for pioneering carbon bikes and clipless pedals in the mid eighties. They started out as a small company producing ski bindings, and were bought by tycoon Bernard Tapie. Tapie also owned a line of health food shops called La Vie Claire, and sponsored a cycling team under that name led by Bernard Hinault. Look developed a clipless pedal, and marketed it through La Vie Claire. Bernard Hinault won the 1985 Tour de France with Look pedals, and within the next five years they became ubiquitous within the peloton. In 1985 Hinault rode a steel handbuilt frame branded as Look, and in 1986 he and Greg Lemond rode the new groundbreaking KG86 carbon frame. It would be twenty years before the rest of the peloton caught up, with most manufacturers making steel bikes into the mid nineties, and aluminium for some ten years after that.

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I changed the Gara decal as it was peeling.

Look never made aluminium bikes. Apart from the 1985 team bike, their steel bikes were aimed at recreational riders; in the mid nineties they offered a range of lugged Columbus tubed bikes. The KG 223 was the bottom of the range, made with plain guage Gara tubing. The higher end KG 243 shared the same geometry but was made with Brain butted tubing, intended for more serious amateur racers. I really like the look of these lugged frames, a classic steel frame that doesn’t look out of place with modern parts.

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The old campag 52-39 chainset – too much for my knees!

The wheels were a bit of an issue; the Rigida DP-18 rims were ok, but the 14-23 Sachs freewheel wouldn’t work for me in the hilly Perigord where I live. I could have re-space the cassette on my Shimano 8 speed wheels to index with the Campy shifters, but that just wouldn’t seem right (Shimano and Campy don’t mix!). In the end I opted for a bargain pair of handbuilt Campag 8 speed cassette wheels on Mavic Open Pro rims. Not only were the wheels a bargain, but the guy selling them ‘threw in’ his old 8 speed Athena levers too (they must be worth about as much again!) Along with the wheels, I changed the handlebars (too narrow), saddle (too firm) and switched out the 52-39 chainset for my 48-34 Stronglight compact. I sold any parts I didn’t need, keeping the build within the original €90 budget (although this doesn’t count parts I already owned). I built my cassette from individual sprockets, including a vintage Campagnolo Off-Road 30 tooth sprocket to get the gears right – I had to turn round the B screw to get the derailleur to shift into it, but it works fine (the Avanti derailleur is officially rated to a 28 tooth max).

The finished bike

The finished bike

Once I’d got all my parts together, I stripped the bike down and rebuilt it (including new cables). I’m very happy with the end result, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first few rides. I’ve built a bike that’s as capable as a new Aluminium road bike, at a fraction of the price, but with a lot more character. And I had a great time building it up too!

Specs: 1997 Look KG 223

  • Frame: Columbus Gara lugged
  • Fork: Look LDS Carbon with aluminium steerer
  • Groupset: Campagnolo Avanti 8s, Athena levers
  • Crankset: Stronglight Impact compact 48/34
  • Pedals: Look PP137
  • Cassette: Miche/Campagnolo custom 15-30
  • Wheels: Campagnolo Athena hubs with Mavic Open Pro rims
  • Saddle: San Marco Rolls
  • Handlebars: 3t Forma SL
  • Stem: 3t Stylus
  • Weight: 10 kg